The Meaning of "Life": The Giving of Life as a Criterion for Ecumenical Hermeneutics
Smit, Peter-Ben, Journal of Ecumenical Studies
The hermeneutical discussion is one of central importance for the ecumenical enterprise The Faith and Order Paper, A Treasure in Earthen Vessels, (1) witnesses to this. All hermeneutics need criteria, so A Treasure in Earthen Vessels develops a number of them, insisting that ecumenical hermeneutics--that is, a "hermeneutics for unity"--should (a) allow for a "greater coherence in the interpretation of the faith," (b) enable "a mutually recognizable (re)appropriation of the sources of the Christian faith," and (c)"prepare ways of common confession and prayer." (2) Throughout the document, however, another characteristic criterion appears, one that is never clearly formulated, namely, that an interpretation should be "life-giving." After sketching briefly the history of the ecumenical discussion about hermeneutics in order to provide the necessary context, as a contribution to the ecumenical discussion about hermeneutics, I first outline where and how the notion of "life-givingness" appears in A Treasure in Earthen Vessels. Second, I seek sources of clarification in the fields of medicine, biblical studies, and pneumatology. Finally, I conclude that the criterion of life-givingness is probably one of the most promising in the whole text.
The fields of medicine, biblical studies, and pneumatology are relevant for the following four reasons: First, since the question of what life is and how it should be defined is probably most fiercely raised in discussions surrounding abortion, stem-cell research, and euthanasia, the theological discussion could profit greatly from an interdisciplinary approach that considers views from the health sciences. Second, since the Bible is the primary source of Christian thinking and this essay's context is that of Christian theology, it is worth probing the notion of a "biblical definition of life." Third, since the language about life used in A Treasure in Earthen Vessels is strongly shaped both by Johannine pneumatology and, more directly, by the section about the Holy Spirit in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, it will be useful to see the importance of the "Spiritas-Giver-of-Life" in recent pneumatological thought. Including pneumatology will also do justice to the importance of tradition in theology. Finally, some tentative conclusions will be formulated to suggest a way in which insights gained from the health sciences, pneumatology, and the Bible can be combined fruitfully to develop the criterion of life-givingness that will help to discern an authentically "inspired" interpretation of Christian tradition, notably of the Bible.
II. Hermeneutics in the Ecumenical Movement
In general, it is recognized that within the ecumenical movement there have been two distinct approaches to the question of hermeneutics. (3) The first and oldest approach concentrates on achieving a common understanding of scripture and tradition. (4) The central question is: How do we find a way of reading the creeds, for example, that is acceptable to all and that will bring the visible unity of our churches closer, be it in the form of reconciled diversity or in other ways? This, however, is not the question at stake here. This approach is closely related to Oldham's "best and ablest minds" approach. (5)
The second approach reflects a later development. It does not aim at establishing a common hermeneutical framework into which all readings of scripture and tradition can fit or with which all can agree; rather, it aims to develop ways for churches to understand one another's differences. This approach is much more contextually oriented and more frequently borrows its models from the social sciences. Understanding one another is the best description of this approach, or one may call it, with Rudolf von Sinner, a "hermeneutics of acceptance." (6) Von Sinner refers to past World Council of Churches general secretary Konrad Raiser as a prominent spokesperson of this kind of hermeneutics, quoting him as follows: "The legitimacy of inculturation or contextualization is not a matter of debate any longer. …